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©Joe Wigdahl

When Joe Wigdahl turned up to shoot a story about the children’s hospice organisation and the families who rely on their resources and care, he was unsure how a photographer would be received. His image of Kirrilee – a critically sick child who would later pass away – is a tribute to the love of her family. Their warmth is skillfully and sensitively captured by Wigdahl in his award-winning portrait, on display at Paddington Reservoir until June 8.

Good Weekend had an assignment to cover a story about several families with children who are critically ill and have terminal illnesses. In two cases the children were born with a devastating disease that made it unable for them to develop mentally and physically as a normal child would. In the case of the third child, Kirrilee Edwards had led an active, vibrant childhood and then when she was 12 suddenly suffered a mysterious brain illness that left her profoundly impaired and gravely ill for the last 6 years of her life.

©Joe Wigdahl

The Edwards family is a big family and they faced a number of struggles because of Kirrilee’s devastating illness, but what I saw was an incredible closeness. I heard stories about 24 hour care, constant trips to hospitals, emotional turmoil, exhaustion and alienation but I also witnessed deep love, acceptance and thriving senses of humor. I was surprised at how often the parents and siblings of these sick children were saying things that had me cracking up.  They seemed glad to have me come take pictures so that other people could learn about their stories. I felt lucky to get to meet these families and I really wanted to hang out all day with them.

©Joe Wigdahl

At the end I felt like it was a tough story to shoot because my wife and I had just given birth to a daughter a few weeks before and we had been going through all of the ups and downs of new parenthood. We were dealing with the massive adjustment in sleep loss and lifestyle change and that feeling that we had no idea what we were doing. I knew that both my wife and I would look at our little girl and feel an enormous sense of love, responsibility and hope for the kind of parents we would be and the type of person our child would become. Seeing these sick children made me think about how families adapt when plans suddenly change and how they deal with the bumps and bruises of a life they didn’t expect.

Kirrilee and her family were supported by Cottage, an institution in Manly, NSW Australia dedicated to serving children and families of children with life limiting illnesses.

Donations to Bear Cottage can be made here:

Make a Donation to the Edwards family via direct deposit:
Troy Edwards
Commonwealth Bank of Australia
BSB: 062 601
Account: 103 506 78
Memo: Kirrilee


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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage